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Blandin Celebrates 15 Years of Achievement at Broadband Conference

October 15, 2019

By Lisa Peterson-de la Cueva, Director Training and Education of CTEP AmeriCorps

Last week the Blandin Foundation convened broadband infrastructure experts, policy makers, and digital inclusion practitioners to celebrate achievements of the last 15 years of broadband work at Blandin.

This is always a great conference in terms of content and format, and thankfully the video and power points are archived at the Blandin on Broadband Blog. I attended the conference, themed this year as Innovation, Putting Broadband to Work, along with two CTEP Members who presented at the conference and also helped document it on the blog.

In the past 15 years the Blandin Foundation has funded 292 projects key to the elements of intelligent communities  design. In her introduction to the conference Bernadine Joselyn, who directs Blandin’s Public Policy and Engagement, cautioned the audience that “while we are better off today than we were in 2004 in terms of broadband, we don’t want to indulge in a false sense of smugness.”

Here were some of the highlights of the conference relevant to CTEP:

  • CTEP Members Charlotte Tjaden and Abby Hebler presented on their work in the Rondo Community Outreach Library and Hennepin County Library. Abby and Charlotte talked a lot about what they do on the ground and the challenges and benefits of the work they do in libraries, and offered some thoughts on what’s next for libraries and digital skills. (Watch the video of Abby and Charlotte presenting starting at 59 minutes in) One of my favorite moments was when a participant came up to Abby and Charlotte at the end of the conference and thanked them enthusiastically for all the work they do on the ground because “I know it can be hard, but that’s where it all happens.”

    I conducted a discussion around integrating cultural awareness training in digital skills programming. Earlier in the conference a presenter from MN Compass had showed a couple of slides (Minute 16) about how much older Minnesotan communities are going to be by the year 2030, and also how much more diverse some rural communities are getting. So we have a lot of work to do to begin dialogue about what this means for rural Minnesota in terms of digital skills programming, and it also presents even more room for collaboration between urban and rural communities.
     
  • We met Hussein Farrah of New Vision Foundation. The New Vision Foundation teaches coding classes in nine public schools in the Twin Cities region. According to their website they are “committed to educating the future I.T. workforce in Minnesota and inspire our disadvantaged communities to join the tech sector. Some of our CTEP members and alums have worked with their coding club at the Best Buy Teen Tech Center at the Brian Coyle Center so it was great to put a face to the name of the coding club. Farrah was a software engineer and used to work with the African Development Center until he left to pursue a dream of expanding I.T. training to all Minnesotans (much of their programming targets East African communities). Farrah was also a Bush Fellow, so overall it was incredible to hear of the work he has accomplished and the valuable opportunities New Vision is now creating for youth.
     
  • Libraries without Borders is doing some great work in conjunction with support with from several libraries across the state of Minnesota. In fact, we learned they have also been teaming up with staff at Rondo Library to provide digital skills classes in non-traditional spaces such as laundry mats and manufactured home communities. One of the most interesting things we heard from Adam Echelman was how their model started abroad and mostly in or near refugee camps, so they learned a thing or two about providing digital skills using mobile technology and tools. For instance they often cart around with them mobile hotspots as well as mobile “idea boxes.” These kinds of initiatives and partnerships are a pretty cool testament to the new role and spirit of libraries, as State Librarian Jen Nelson pointed out in her presentation.
     
  • Some rural communities are really doing interesting work with remote technology, such as improving health outcomes using telehealth. One group, Kairos Alive! is actually using Zoom to teach dancing and wellness to youth and elderly communities, and those with disabilities. We reflected that CTEP partners could potentially do that kind of thing to connect participants in different programs across the Twin Cities, without having to take a field trip.
     
  • Finally, we always get a lot of ideas around format of conferences and events. Blandin has uniquely approached its grant making as a convener and community builder. They spend a lot of time, energy and money to make sure grantees meet and learn from each other. I always feel inspired by that approach and like to study their community building activities at their conferences.

    One of my favorite activities this year was a huge timeline that Blandin staff put together of the last 15 years of political and cultural events, as well as broadband milestones (see picture above). They asked attendees to take a photo of themselves and add it to the timeline with a note about their participation.

    It made us all literally take a step back and see how many people, organizations, and work has gone into digital inclusion work across the state in the last 15 years. It was a great tool to celebrate achievement.